Banner image is a T. Eaton Company print, pre-1900, from the City of Toronto Archives.
When I was growing up the Christmas season was heralded by the Consumer’s Distributing catalogue being tossed on your doorstep. Of all the catalogues you were likely to receive, it was the thickest and could provide hours – days even – of glossy-paged joy. I don’t recall ever zeroing in on a specific toy, or getting anything from it as a present, but just paging through the catalogue was gift enough for me.
And so, in that spirit, I thought it’d be be fun to mark this holiday season by sifting through old catalogues from Eaton’s and Simpson’s – both now long gone, but once our two largest, competing department stores – to see what kids were dreaming of over a century ago.
Every generation has a high-tech, must-have gizmo:
Initially by “profitable” I thought they were pitching this at the young entrepreneur –the kinda kid who’d charge his pals a ha-penny for a show. But, disappointingly, I think they meant it was vaguely educational. And it wasn’t quite that magical – it was the forerunner of those View-Master thingies that came with slides of Disneyworld when I was a kid. The kind that kept you entertained for about a minute.
For the traditional child who just wanted a dolly to play with, there was a bumper crop of rubber and porcelain dolls to choose from. … And then there was this thing:
Contrary to my gut feeling, the Billiken doll was supposed to bestow good luck on the recipient. Created by illustrator Florence Pretz, its name came from this verse of “Mr Moon: A Song of the Little People” by Canadian poet Bliss Carman:
A few years later, Billiken faced some stiff competition when this doll broke out on the scene:
It might seem a little odd to push parenthood on children by calling this doll the “Uneeda Kid” but it was really the off-shoot of an entirely different product: the Uneeda Biscuit. And by “biscuit” they meant soda cracker:
Of course, not every kid wants a doll…
If you’ve ever seen the movie “A Christmas Story” you’ll be familiar with this thing:
Goes to show the Daisy line of air rifles had been around for a long time before Ralfie started dreaming of owning one. But, unlike his Daisy Red Ryder, the early models do not seem to have offered a compass in the stock. Though you could get a repeater.
If shooting wasn’t your thing, perhaps a fire truck was – though, to be precise, it was called an Auto Hook and Ladder:
For the kid whose heart soared at the thought of household chores, there was the Eureka Wash Set, which came with a wringer, clothes horse, tub, wash board, stand and clothes line – all for .95 cents:
For the kids (like me) who longed for a doll house (I eventually got one) there was this beaut:
And just like with real houses, its small scale was advertised as “cosy”:
Now if you wanted to get your child out of the house occasionally, and had the six dollars to spend, there was this lovely red wagon. Just think how excited they’d be to find it under the tree on Christmas morning:
Given the option though, it’s possible they might have preferred this sweet little ride – it was the same price after all:
If you didn’t have six dollars in 1909 (that’s about $150 today) to spend on a riding model car, it’d have been far more economical to buy a clockwork toy car. Sure, it might’ve been a bit of a letdown but it had a cooler name:
For the little artist in your home, there was a nifty paint set which came with paints, a brush and a collection of pictures to colour:
With WWI came a smattering of children’s gift ideas with a distinct theme:
But on the whole, the bulk of offerings for children were focused on light, innocent play. And, if you were at all concerned that there should be an educational quotient to their gifts, well, you could always give them a book. They might even thank you for it:
Well, sadly, as I mentioned earlier, both Eaton’s and Simpson’s are no longer around. Eaton’s, which was opened by Timothy Eaton in 1869, was bankrupted in 1999. Simpson’s, founded by Robert Simpson in 1858, was taken over by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1978 – itself now bought up by the unromantically named NRDC Equity Partners. But while both Eaton’s and Simpson’s were still in the black, the two department stores enjoyed a healthy rivalry – staring each other down on opposite sides of Queen Street West.
Today, both sites still operate as department stores, though only the former Simpson’s building remains as it was in Robert Simpson’s lifetime. Though both have passed into the hands of large, vaguely named corporations, I’m sure to many Torontonians they’ll always be thought of as Eaton’s and Simpson’s. More certain than that is that there are toys enough in each to thrill any child this Christmas.